The Film Festival in San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque) has been taking place since 1953. For some reason it’s been significantly less popular than the festivals in Cannes or Berlin, despite the fact that equally famous directors present their films there, and celebrities like Julia Roberts or Woody Allen visit the town. Two years ago I had an opportunity to see the festival myself and at that time the biggest star, who came to show his movie “Inglourious Basterds”, was Quentin Tarantino accompanied by Brad Pitt. Among the other actors and directors who came to the festival were Francois Ozon, Naomi Watts and Jim Jarmusch. And still, we can ask the question how many film fans have heard about the festivals in Cannes and Berlin and how many about San Sebastian.
This rhetorical question illustrates perfectly well the reasons why San Sebastian deserved the title of the European Capital of Culture 2016. As the choice of Wroclaw has provoked lengthy discussions in Poland, similarly the choice of San Sebastian in Spain became a very controversial topic that was discussed in the whole country. Córdoba was the favourite but everyone is familiar with this city, right? To begin with, let’s explain what it means when a city is chosen as the European Capital of Culture. The tradition started in 1985 and, according to the official website of the European Commission, the title is supposed to express and promote the cultural diversity of Europe. The city is chosen as a European Capital of Culture not “solely for what it is, but mainly for what it plans to do for a year that has to be exceptional” (for more info go to: http://ec.europa.eu/culture/our-programmes-and-actions/doc413_en.htm). Similar charges have been made against Wroclaw which is a well known and popular city, visited by a vast number of tourists. Why not to award the title to a city that is interesting and has a rich cultural offer but needs some good marketing? And this is exactly what Spanish did. Why then, so many controversies?
The opponents of the selection of San Sebastian explain that the city is the cultural capital of the Basque Country, a separatist region of Spain that is mainly linked to a terrorist organisation ETA. San Sebastian is the capital of Gipuzkoa province, the most Basque part of the Basque Country. What’s more, the last local election was won by nationalists from a new coalition called Bildu. The critics point out that Donostia will reinforce itself as a stereotype of the Basque Country struggling for independence, which will present all of Spain in a bad light. And the reality is completely opposite.
San Sebastian’s application for the European Capital of Culture title was based on a programme called “olas de energia ciudadana” which loosely translated means “waves of citizens’ energy”. You can read more about the idea here: http://www.sansebastian2016.eu/web/guest/ss_ciudad_candidata/porque_ss. In a nutshell, the project intends to engage citizens through culture. As a result, Donostia aims to battle negative stereotypes and images of the Basque Country as either the most dangerous or boring region. There is a lot happening in San Sebastian e.g., apart from the international Film Festival, every year the city organises an international Jazz Festival (Jazzaldia).
San Sebastian also holds many local celebrations and festivals. The most famous one is Tamborrada on 20th January (the city’s festival), when the entire city follows the drums’ rhythm for 24 hours. Local festivals give a great opportunity to familiarise oneself with Basque culture and traditions which are very interesting and so different from the Spanish ones. It’s difficult to eat paella or drink sangria in San Sebastian. However, you can listen to some traditional Basque poets (bertsolaris), see Basques playing pelota and instead of tapas try Basque pintxos.
The title of the European Capital of Culture, awarded to San Sebastian, gives the city a long-awaited opportunity that was greeted by its citizens with great joy when the results were announced. Bilbao is famous for the Guggenheim Museum, Pamplona for its San Fermin festival (crowds running away from bulls on the streets of Pamplona) and what about San Sebastian? 2016 brings an opportunity for this Basque city to gain popularity among tourists and culture admirers from all over the world.
Spain is a clearly divided country where the particular regions are more important than the country as a whole. The Basque Country is the region where the separatist feeling is the strongest. It’s also the only region where terrorism has managed to spread. For this reason one can understand why the rest of Spain was reserved about the news of awarding this city in this particular part of the country. Donostia, however, is not only about fighting for autonomy and demonstrating against Spanish government, it’s also a beautiful city, amazing people and considerable cultural diversity. It’s a city which, as a result of its actions in the recent years and plans for the future, definitely deserves a chance that comes with the title of the European Capital of Culture.
*I’m not sure what would be the best way to translate a phrase “Aupa Donosti” as “aupa” literally means something like “hi/hello”, in this context though, it may be translated as “go Donostia, go”. The Basques often use this phrase while supporting one of their cities, the people of every city of the Basque Country had lots of flags and banners with exactly this slogan when watching the regatta.
Translation: Anna Martinsen